When Ministry Becomes an Idol

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first (Revelation 2:4 NIV 2011)

What does it look like when someone has “forsaken the love you had at first”? How would you know it? 

Many of us have served the Lord for a long time. We enjoy ministry. We find ministry fulfilling and meaningful. So what is the concern? 

The concern is that we can sometimes allow “our ministry” to take the preeminent seat in our lives, to take a seat ahead of the Lord Jesus Himself. At times we can allow our attention and our identity to be in our ministry, in our ministry role, or in our ministry success, instead of finding our identity in Christ. If we are not careful, we can make our ministry into an idol and, in a sense, we bow down to it. 

Ministry as the Ultimate Thing

It certainly sounds a little strange to be speaking about idolatry in 2023. Usually we think of idolatry as something from long ago. Idolatry was “way back then.” But what has been called “ministry idolatry” is with us today. 

Webster’s dictionary defines idolatry as, “Excessive devotion to or reverence for some person or thing.” Spiritually speaking, this is an excessive devotion to an object, activity, or person other than the Lord, which a serious concern. Idolatry takes over when that object, activity, or person begins to take the primary place of God in our hearts or thinking. 

Tim Keller, the popular New York City pastor of Redeemer Church, defines an idol in his 2009 book Counterfeit Gods:

“Anything in life can serve as an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god” (p. xvi).

“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (p. xvii).

Keller has often been quoted as saying: “An idol is when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing.” 

So is it time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some hard questions? Is it possible that our ministry has become an idol? It is possible that we have made our ministry (which is a good thing) into an idol, making it an ultimate thing, the source of our identity? 

Often ministry idolatry is in our blind spot; we just don’t see it. Idolatry is often extremely subtle. Again, we just don’t see it in ourselves, which is one of the reasons that idolatry is so dangerous. None of us wants to believe that we have made our ministry into an idol. In subtle ways we deceive ourselves with self-love for our own little kingdoms, and the whole time we believe we are being faithful to the Lord and His Kingdom. But the truth may be that we have become addicted to the success of our own ministry. Our pride is running ahead of our devotion. 

Our identity is to be in Christ and must remain in Him. We can’t allow our identity to be in anything but in Jesus alone. 

Exam for Idolatry Creep

Dave Kraft, a West Coast church consultant, speaks of “idolatry creep.” He said, “Idolatry creep sneaks up on you because you can easily and quickly justify it by saying that everything you do is for the Lord.” 

So what are we supposed to do? Just as we have a physical exam to check on our physical health, we should take time out for a spiritual exam to check up on our spiritual health. 

There are many ways to perform a spiritual checkup. Here are a few thoughts.

Put some extended quiet time in your calendar, time to be alone and quiet before the Lord. 

Begin to pray and ask the Lord to identify anything that He wants to put his finger on, anything He wants to say to you.  We all have a long prayer list of requests that we keep before the Lord, but now is a time to just be quiet, to just listen. “Lord, what do you want to say to me?” 

Search the Scriptures. Go back to some familiar passages that have been important to you in earlier times in your life and ministry. Let the truth of the Scriptures flow over you. Here are a few Scriptures to get you started:

  • Colossians 3:4:  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
  • Philippians 1:21:  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 
  • 1 John 5:21:  Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. 
  • 1 Corinthians 10:7:  Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 
  • 1 Corinthians 10:14:  Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.

Identify a close accountability partner who knows and loves you well, then talk and pray your way through this journey with them.

Henri Nouwen said: “The main obstacle to loving God is service for God.” So it is.  

Recently another well-known Christian ministry leader has fallen from grace because of a major failure in his private life. None of us needs to know the details. We just need to understand that “there, but by the grace of God, go I.” It could easily be any one of us. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. 

Let’s all face the challenge of not forsaking our first love by keeping our ministry success in its rightful place. Our ministry success is a good thing, but it is not an ultimate thing. 

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